Part human, part earth creature and all-round real food evangelist, Valentine Warner is one of those chefs who really does walk the talk. At a time when most supermarket foods have more of a connection with added chemicals than with their original form, he exhorts a return to nature, complete with red tooth and claw.
Having introduced much of the world to seasonal produce with his cookbook and BBC show What to Eat Now, the British chef is as likely to be found fishing on Hampshire’s River Test as he is exploring chicken feet in Balinese food markets. That’s going by his Instagram feed, where he has a realistic 2,595 followers — which conjures up the impression of a rustic romantic who’d much rather hunker down in a log cabin snacking on the hooves of a deer he caught last week.
What is a prawn if not a sea cockroach? I'll give insect grub a go-Valentine Warner, chef
So it’s a surprise that he’d show up at a commercial event such as Taste of Dubai — or that he’d leave the countryside at all.
But there’s email in the forest, and we were able to ask him some questions ahead of the annual eat-a-thon. Unlike other chefs he doesn’t have cookbooks to sell or a business to keep alive. Instead, he’s already looked beyond Dubai’s glamour for real experiences that he hopes to introduce residents to. And yes, it turns out he really does have the soul of a poet. Onward:
What are you demonstrating at Taste of Dubai?
Fish mainly, as I know the UAE has a long-standing tradition with fishing activities and have some of the best local fish options. I will also be cooking with lamb and showcasing the use of a variety of spices and herbs.
You’ve obviously been to the UAE before. What food adventures have you had here?
I’ve been to Taste of Abu Dhabi but the trip was brief and I was rushing around. I did however have a great chat with [chef] Jose Pizarro in the swimming pool at the hotel. He took me on a sort of adventure I guess, telling me about his mother’s cooking and family life in rural Spain. What I do know is that on this trip I’d like to be shown some really good local cooking.
What’s the most memorable food adventure you’ve had — anywhere?
I think travelling through Sami Lapland and cooking outside in minus 50 temperatures with the sled dogs barking in the snow. We killed a reindeer and made dumplings with its blood, cracked the bones for the marrow and melted it on potatoes. We caught little fishes through the ice and made a paste with their fillets and roe to eat with simple bread. The Northern Lights came out at night, all trembling above. I found it so magical. I was in my element. I love that part of the world.
Which single food journey has most impacted the way you cook?
My cooking is really impacted by the last place I was in, or the place I am in. I get back from that country and want to cook that food. Anywhere, be it the UK or Mexico I’m always wanting to understand what’s local, what is the history, the animals and plants, where’s the market? I want to meet the grandmothers and grandfathers who remember those times past, processes and recipes that are sadly disappearing so fast. They hold a lot of the cooking secrets.
New ideas are so often based on old ones and I like my cooking to have roots… for there to be a point. We are spoilt for choice in most places and something will always get cooked in the end. Provincial cooking or journeying into remoter communities is where I usually find a strong and proud food culture and one more in balance with nature. Overall it’s where I’ve learnt most.
What food ideas do you try to pass on to your kids?
Be inquisitive with food but don’t eat a mushroom you can’t identify.
But why do I need to learn to cook? I don’t need to know how to drive in the Uber economy, or speak a foreign language…
Cooking is a life skill. If you can’t cook you are not an adult! If you can’t cook you don’t understand what’s around you! If you can’t cook you are not self-sufficient! And who’s to say we won’t all need this knowledge again one day. You don’t have to enjoy it but we do need to know how to do it.
If you don’t cook your food budget is at the mercy of others while you would eat far better and with less money. For £2 I can eat herrings fried in oats with a kale salad. You can keep your pizza. To cook and to know food is to understand the wider world around you.
Like the UN recommends, do you think we should all be eating bugs?
What is a prawn if not a sea cockroach? Asia to Mexico, insects have long been celebrated. We in the UK have become very squeamish since the 50s.
We could all do with eating a lot less but have to think of bugs given rapid population growth. It’s the right attitude. I’ve eaten cricket tacos and love a snail with parsley and almond butter. I’ll give insect grub a go.
One of the most surprising things I’ve heard is that you love eating in fine restaurants. Aren’t you always out hunting and gathering your own food?
Absolutely not. I’m not a militant nettle muncher. Those things contribute to my food and cooking but are not a rigid way of life but instead a part of it. I love restaurants and trattorias, market stalls, etc. I learn there, I laugh there, I eat there.
Hardly need to worry about rosemary, thyme or juniper here as mountain covered in it. To put anything else on the Pyrenean lamb chops would be an affectation. Tomatoes in dry garden still going for it, chard a bit yellowing but perfectly alright. Any way that’s dinner. Lunch was an epic sandwich of crusty baguette, said tomatoes, a big smear or carne de pimiento, pinch of salt, 4 slices of pata negra and a hello of walnut oil ..... and a beer. Cheerio
Why don’t you have a regular restaurant? Surely you’ve had offers?
Yes, I have but I think it is wise that I understand that owning a restaurant does not simply entail cooking. I hate spreadsheets and administration. I’d find it tiresome, yet it’s a requirement. I’ve never found the right restaurant partner …but I haven’t really been looking. At any rate, life has been curious and interesting and has been keeping me busy over the years.
Three things on your food bucket list?
To sit down to excellent caviar without the worry of it running out.
To eat my way across the world for a year but at my leisure.
To have a fish restaurant built of wood and only open in summer; on the edge of the sea, it would also be in the middle of a wood. Fish would be cooked over wood…I’d need a business partner who’d do all the administration so I could simply cook.
Lovely night of fire pit cooking at Soho Farmhouse. Curried spices having a brief but exciting affair with that most delicious Leffe Blonde Alongside - lamb's hearts cooked with smoked paprika and vinegar, Pommes Boulanger and tomatoes with Dijon mustard. Artichoke Windrush cheese and summer truffle pizzas with shavings of Berwick edge to start.
Taste of Dubai runs until March 10. Tickets, starting from Dh80, are available on tasteofdubaifestival.com.
‘RECIPE’, A POEM ABOUT FOOD — by Valentine Warner
Take a walk into the English woods in May.
Find a stream
Take out a jam jar and from the jam jar take a worm
Put it on a hook and cast it into the glittering stream
Catch a trout and fry it in butter on the bank
While the fish cooks….
Pick and wash two handfuls of the wild garlic you have found all around you
Take the trout from the pan to an enamel plate
Briefly wilt the garlic in the butter